Lawyer Sees History, Book Idea In Muhammad Case

November 15, 2009|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,

Minutes before convicted Washington-area sniper John Allen Muhammad was executed Tuesday night in Virginia, he said goodbye to a Baltimore lawyer who had become a trusted confidant.

"I love you, brother," Muhammad said, according to the attorney, J. Wyndal Gordon, and Gordon told the condemned man he loved him back.

Then Gordon shook Muhammad's hand through the bars and clutched his elbow with his free hand. "I was looking at him in his eyes," he said. "There was just no fear there, like he had resigned to it."

The two men met in 2006, when Muhammad was representing himself in Montgomery County on six murder charges stemming from the 2002 sniper rampage that took 10 lives - six in Maryland, three in Virginia and one in the District of Columbia. Gordon was volunteering as standby counsel at the Montgomery trial.

Lawyer and defendant "forged a really strong relationship," said Melanie Goldman, a cousin of Muhammad's who lives in Virginia.

"John said he could never repay him for all that he did for him," she said. Muhammad told her that "when no one else believed in him, J. Wyndal Gordon believed in his innocence."

In the days before the lethal injection, Gordon and Muhammad spent hours together at the Greensville Correctional Center in southern Virginia. Early Tuesday evening, Gordon insisted to a throng of reporters that his former client had been wrongly convicted. Later that night, he witnessed his first execution.

And his involvement continues, says Gordon, 40, who practices from a downtown office on North Calvert Street. He said he is writing a book about Muhammad's case, an endeavor he says Muhammad himself suggested. He says he has an agent and a working title: "Jury of Our Fears."

"He didn't really trust anybody else like he trusted me," Gordon said of Muhammad, who was 48. "I know his words. I have his writings. I know everything."

The literary project bothers another lawyer who most recently represented Muhammad. Jonathan Sheldon filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that his client was mentally ill and should be spared death.

Sheldon said he likes Gordon and believes he shared a genuine bond with Muhammad, but nonetheless called the book "inappropriate."

"I think it's really, really misguided to use a relationship with an executed client to make a book for profit," Sheldon said.

Goldman, the cousin, supports the book. "I think it's awesome," she said. "If the human side of John can get out and J. Wyndal can do a good job doing that, I don't see anything wrong with it, as long as it's factual."

Tall with a muscular build, Gordon has long been "media-friendly," as he puts it. In 1995, after graduating from the University of Baltimore Law School and starting his firm, the Afro-American newspaper profiled him under the headline, "Dream Comes True for Young Lawyer."

Over the past 14 years, he has built a general civil and criminal practice, representing clients in wrongful death, personal injury and police brutality cases.

In 2006, in a display of ambition and self-confidence, he briefly ran for state attorney general despite impossibly long odds.

That was shortly after he got to know Muhammad, by then condemned to die in Virginia for shooting Dean Meyers at a gas station in Manassas, Va. Though Muhammad opted to act as his own lawyer at the Montgomery trial, standby lawyers were needed.

Gordon, who had a role in one previous capital case, quickly volunteered for the unpaid service. He had several motivations, he said. One was to help ensure Muhammad got a fair trial. Another was to satisfy his curiosity about the case.

He also sensed opportunity: "I thought, this is history in the making. And in the back of my mind, I knew there was some kind of writing - a book or something - involved in this case."

The trial lasted about a month. As Gordon tells it, he and two fellow lawyers would spend all day with Muhammad in a Rockville courtroom and much of the evening strategizing with him at the jail.

"He was grateful we were there; I think that's what fostered our kinship," said Gordon, adding that he used his own money to fly in witnesses. The trial ended with six murder convictions for Muhammad and an equal number of life sentences.

His convicted accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, 24, pleaded guilty and also received six life sentences with no possibility of parole for the Maryland killings. He is serving life in a Virginia prison.

After Muhammad returned to death row in Virginia, Gordon stayed in touch. "If I'd send him a letter, he'd send me one right back," he said. "If he sent me a letter, I'd send him one right back."

Muhammad asked for books such as "Innocent Man" and "Surviving Justice." He requested a range of music - Tupac Shakur, Bob Marley, gospel. In October 2006, he wrote to Gordon and two other standby lawyers. The letter, laden with religious themes, called them Good Samaritans.

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